Survey of London Monograph 17, County Hall. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1991.
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This book describes the history and architecture of the building which for sixty years served as the headquarters of Metropolitan government in London. In its design and in its extent it expressed the aspirations and responsibilities of a major local authority at a time when such authorities were the workhorses of government. The history of the building reflects the growth and importance of the London County Council, in a period when a visit to County Hall was part of the programme of visiting Heads of State, and when the income of the LCC was larger than that of some sovereign states. The Times, in reviewing the new County Hall, reminded its readers that, despite the very recent appearance on the metropolitan scene of both the County of London and the LCC, 'by virtue of the millions of people numbered in the one, and the millions in money with which the other has each year to deal, the human and economic interests under the Council's administration are unmatched for extent and complexity among the municipalities of the world'.
The building was judged not only as a functional centre, but also as a tangible symbol of London government. Its very site was a temerarious gamble: it had to stand comparison both with Somerset House and the Palace of Westminster, a challenge which was perhaps more successful architecturally than politically. Changing circumstances have made this more obvious. Its architect, Ralph Knott, could speak breezily of the unlikelihood of details being seen across a fogbound river, but the Clean Air Acts have allowed the building to be more fully appreciated than its designer could have hoped. In addition, it now stands in the company of other prestigious buildings, ranging from the Shell Centre to the National Theatre, instead of alongside a group of obsolescent warehouses and the Shot Tower.
it was the building itself which was important. It is a splendid city building and worthy of its position and its purpose. It held its own easily with the other three major Westminster [sic] buildings, the Palace of Westminster, New Scotland Yard and St. Thomas' Hospital, and being part of it gave me a sense of belonging to something which was the greatest of its kind nationally and second only to the Parliament buildings opposite.... It is difficult to put into words but I am sure it gave weight to our work.
Though like most buildings it became old-fashioned in its middle-age, later on County Hall came to exemplify the virtues of a lost age – 'good traditional materials firmly used... a civilised pile... appropriate for its purpose, worthy of its splendid position'. Its finest apartments were reserved for the Members, though also enjoyed by visitors. Hugh Casson recalled the heady years of preparing for the Festival of Britain when he visited County Hall:
it was a daily delight to pace those generously spaced and handsomely panelled corridors and to wonder at the diligence and detailed attention of the designers. Every corner beautifully turned, every cornice advancing and retreating in proper order, every door... giving a glimpse of well proportioned rooms, specially designed furniture and radiator casings...
If it was the LCC's ever-increasing demand for space which led to the extension of the building, it is the meticulous record-keeping which enables the historian to trace the development of the design. A large number of interests were concerned with the creation and operation of the building, and these reflect not only the policies of the two major political parties, but also the interaction of Members' and officers' ambitions and schemes. Some saw the building merely as a shelter for LCC Members and officers, others as a magnificent headquarters for London, to be decorated with sculpture and works of art, complete with library and tea-room, and even a terrace which could rival that across the river. These differing objectives and ambitions are recorded in the LCC records, often in notes taken by officers, which amplify the drier official Council minutes. Equally cautious officers recorded the details of tenders and formal commissions to craftsmen and contractors so that the erection of the building is not only of interest in itself but throws light on the contemporary architectural profession and indeed the whole building industry.
Though relatively few of the unsuccessful competition drawings have survived, the researcher is almost overwhelmed by the number of contract and working drawings formerly stored in the Architect's Plan Room at County Hall. These throw an unusually detailed light on the changes made as the building progressed, the sources for the interior designs, and the names of the craftsmen.
The changes to the detailed design of County Hall were increased by the wartime break, when the great unfinished building stood on the embankment 'still partially scaffolded and enclosed by hoardings'. When work resumed, taste and economics had changed, and the building lacked some of its intended sculptural and decorative embellishments. Nonetheless it is a public building of great significance, designed not only to demonstrate the importance of London's municipality but also to enhance the lives of Londoners, both by inspiring a Renaissance of the South Bank riverside and by providing a public building whose interior and exterior would be of the best, superbly executed in choice materials. Though one of the most prominent public buildings in London, the carefully detailed and finely crafted interiors were not well-known, even to Londoners.
This is a record of the development of a building, important both architecturally and decoratively. As the book went to press, the future of County Hall was again uncertain, though the exterior of the main County Hall building has already been safeguarded.
A great civic monument – yes, it was certainly that: the building and the reputation of the London County Council were somehow inseparable... And how well Ralph Knott's classical exterior represented this vision – strong, serene, magnificent perhaps, but not grandiloquent.